Mickey Rooney: Career stretched from child star to family-favorite entertainer
Mickey Rooney, once a child star known for singing and dancing, who later blossomed into a respected adult actor on stage, screen, and television over the course of an 80-year career, passed away Sunday.
Mickey Rooney, the pint-size, precocious actor and all-around talent whose more than 80-year career spanned silent comedies, Shakespeare, Judy Garland musicals, Andy Hardy stardom, television, and the Broadway theater, died Sunday.
Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith said that Rooney was with his family when he died at his North Hollywood home.
Mr. Smith said police took a death report but indicated that there was nothing suspicious and he had no additional details on the circumstances of his passing. The Los Angeles County Coroner's office said it was not their case because Rooney died a natural death.
There were no further immediate details on the cause of death, but Rooney did attend an Oscar party last month.
Mr. Rooney started his career in his parents' vaudeville act while still a toddler, and broke into movies before age 10. He was still racking up film and TV credits more than 80 years later – a tenure likely unmatched in the history of show business.
"I always say, 'Don't retire - inspire,'" he told The Associated Press in March 2008. "There's a lot to be done."
Among his roles in recent years was a part as a guard in the smash 2006 comedy "A Night at the Museum" and a brief cameo as a small town resident in "The Muppets" in 2011.
Rooney won two special Academy Awards for his film achievements, and reigned from 1939 to 1942 as the No. 1 moneymaking star in movies, his run only broken when he joined the Army. At his peak, he was the incarnation of the show biz lifer, a shameless ham and hoofer whom one could imagine singing, dancing and wisecracking in his crib, his blond hair, big grin and constant motion a draw for millions. He later won an Emmy and was nominated for a Tony.
"Mickey Rooney, to me, is the closest thing to a genius I ever worked with," Clarence Brown, who directed his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Human Comedy," once said.
Rooney's personal life matched his film roles for color. His first wife was the glamorous - and taller - Ava Gardner, and he married seven more times, fathering seven sons and four daughters.
Through divorces, money problems and career droughts, he kept returning with customary vigor.
"I've been coming back like a rubber ball for years," he commented in 1979, the year he returned with a character role in "The Black Stallion," drawing an Oscar nomination as supporting actor, one of four nominations he earned over the years.
That same year he starred with Ann Miller in a revue called "Sugar Babies," a hokey mixture of vaudeville and burlesque. It opened in New York in October 1979, and immediately became Broadway's hottest ticket. Rooney received a Tony nomination (as did Miller) and earned millions during his years with the show.
"I loved working with Mickey on 'Sugar Babies.' He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all ... each and every one. We laughed all the time," Carol Channing said.
To the end, he was a non-stop talker continually proposing enterprises, some accomplished, some just talk: a chain of barbecue stands; training schools for talented youngsters; a Broadway show he wrote about himself and Judy Garland; screenplays, novels, plays.
Rooney was among the last survivors of Hollywood's studio era, which his career predated. Rooney signed a contract with MGM in 1934 and landed his first big role as Clark Gable as a boy in "Manhattan Melodrama." A loanout to Warner Bros. brought him praise as an exuberant Puck in Max Reinhardt's 1935 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which also featured James Cagney and a young Olivia de Havilland.
Rooney was soon earning $300 a week with featured roles in such films as "Riff Raff," ''Little Lord Fauntleroy," ''Captains Courageous," ''The Devil Is a Sissy," and most notably, as a brat humbled by Spencer Tracy's Father Flanagan in "Boys Town."
The big break came with the wildly popular Andy Hardy series, beginning with "A Family Affair."
"I knew 'A Family Affair' was a B picture, but that didn't stop me from putting my all in it," Rooney wrote. "A funny thing happened to this little programmer: released in April 1937, it ended up grossing more than half a million dollars nationwide."
The critics grimaced at the depiction of a kindly small-town judge (Lionel Barrymore) with his character-building homilies to his obstreperous son. But MGM saw the film as a good template for a series and studio head Louis B. Mayer saw the series as a template for a model American home. With Barrymore replaced by Lewis Stone in subsequent films and Rooney's part built up, Andy Hardy became a national hero and the 15 Hardy movies became a gold mine.
Rooney's peppy, all-American charm was never better matched than when he appeared opposite his friend and fellow child star Garland in such films as "Babes on Broadway" and "Strike up the Band," musicals built around a plot of "Let's put on a show!" One of them, the 1939 "Babes in Arms," brought him his first Oscar nomination. He was also in such dramas as "The Human Comedy," 1943, which gained Rooney his second Oscar nomination as best actor, and "National Velvet," 1944, with Elizabeth Taylor.
But Rooney became a cautionary tale for early fame. He earned a reputation for drunken escapades and quickie romances and was unlucky in both money and love. In 1942 he married for the first time, to Gardner, the statuesque MGM beauty. He was 21, she was 19.
"I'm 5 feet 3, but I was 6 feet 4 when I married Ava," he said in later years. The marriage ended in a year, and Rooney joined the Army in 1943, spending most of his World War II service entertaining troops.
Rooney returned to Hollywood and disillusionment. His savings had been stolen by a manager and his career was in a nose dive. He made two films at MGM, then his contract was dropped.
"I began to realize how few friends everyone has," he wrote in his second autobiography. "All those Hollywood friends I had in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941, when I was the toast of the world, weren't friends at all."
His movie career never regained its prewar eminence. "The Bold and the Brave," 1956 World War II drama, brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. But mostly, he played second leads in such films as "Off Limits" with Bob Hope, "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" with William Holden, and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" with Anthony Quinn. In the early 1960s, he had a wild turn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as Audrey Hepburn's bucktoothed Japanese neighbor and was among the fortune seekers in the all-star comedy "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."
Rooney's starring roles came in low-budget films such as "Drive a Crooked Road," ''The Atomic Kid," ''Platinum High School," ''The Twinkle in God's Eye" and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini."
But his later career proved his resilience: The Oscar nomination for "Black Stallion." The "Sugar Babies" hit that captivated New York, London, Las Vegas and major US cities. Voicing animated features like "The Fox and the Hound," ''The Care Bears Movie" and "Little Nemo." An Emmy for his portrayal of a disturbed man in the 1981 TV movie "Bill." Teaming with his eighth wife, Jan, off-Broadway in 2004 for a musical look back at his career called, fittingly, "Let's Put On a Show."
"He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn't do. Singing, dancing, performing ... all with great expertise," actress Margaret O'Brien said. "I was currently doing a film with him, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hyde" - I simply can't believe it. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever."
Over the years, Rooney also made hundreds of appearances on TV talk and game shows, dramas and variety programs. He starred in three series: "The Mickey Rooney Show" (1954), "Mickey" (1964) and "One of the Boys" (1982). All lasted one season and a co-star from "One of the Boys," Dana Carvey, later parodied Rooney on "Saturday Night Live," mocking him as a hopeless egomaniac who couldn't stop boasting he once was "the number one star ... IN THE WOOORLD!"
In 1983, the Motion Picture Academy presented Rooney with an honorary Oscar for his "60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances." That matched the 1938 special award he shared with Deanna Durbin for "bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth."
A lifelong storyteller, Rooney wrote two memoirs: "i.e., an Autobiography" published in 1965; "Life Is Too Short," 1991. He also produced a novel about a child movie star, "The Search for Sonny Skies," in 1994.
In the autobiographies, Rooney gave two versions of his debut in show business. First he told of being 1½ and climbing into the orchestra pit of the burlesque theater where his parents were appearing. He sat on a kettle drum and pretended to be playing his whistle, vastly amusing the audience. The theater owner kept him in the show.
The second autobiography told a different story: He was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd loved it.
Whatever the introduction, Joe Yule Jr., born in 1920, was the star of his parents' act by the age of 2, singing "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" in a tiny tuxedo. His father was a baggy-pants comic, Joe Yule, his mother a dancer, Nell Carter. Yule was a boozing Scotsman with a wandering eye, and the couple soon parted.
While his mother danced in the chorus, young Joe was wowing audiences with his heartfelt rendition of "Pal o' My Cradle Days." During a tour to California, the boy made his film debut as a midget in a 1926 Fox short, "Not to Be Trusted."
Young Joe Yule played another midget in a Warner Bros. feature, "Orchids and Ermine," starring Colleen Moore. Then he tried out for the lead in a series of Mickey McGuire comedies, meant to rival Hal Roach's "Our Gang."
"I was ready to be Mickey McGuire," Rooney wrote in his memoirs, "except for one thing: his hair was black, mine was blonde."
His mother dyed his hair black the night before the audition, and her son won the role. He also acquired a new name: Mickey McGuire. He starred in 21 of the silent comedies, 42 with sound.
The boy was also playing kid parts in features, and his name seemed inappropriate. His mother suggested Rooney, after the vaudeville dancer, Pat Rooney.
After splitting with Gardner, Rooney married Betty Jane Rase, Miss Birmingham of 1944, whom he had met during military training in Alabama. They had two sons and divorced after four years. Their son Timothy died in September 2006.
His third and fourth marriages were to actress Martha Vickers (one son) and model Elaine Mahnken.
The fifth Mrs. Rooney, model Barbara Thomason, gave birth to four children. While the couple were estranged in 1966, she was found shot to death in her Brentwood home; beside her was the body of her alleged lover, a Yugoslavian actor. It was an apparent murder and suicide.
A year later, Rooney began a three-month marriage to Margaret Lane. She was followed by a secretary, Caroline Hockett – another divorce after five years and one daughter.
In 1978, Rooney, 57, married for the eighth - and apparently last - time. His bride was singer Janice Darlene Chamberlain, 39. Their marriage lasted longer than the first seven combined.
After a lifetime of carrying on, he became a devoted Christian and member of the Church of Religious Science. He settled in suburban Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles west of Los Angeles.
In 2011, Rooney was in the news again when he testified before Congress about abuse of the elderly, alleging that he was left powerless by a family member who took and misused his money.
"I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated," Rooney told a special Senate committee considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens. "But above all, when a man feels helpless, it's terrible."
That year Rooney sued his stepson Christopher Aber and others on allegations that they tricked him into thinking he was on the brink of poverty while defrauding him out of millions and bullying him into continuing to work. Aber declined comment on the suit except to say, "this lawsuit is not from Mickey Rooney - it's from his conservators who are stealing from him." Both Rooney and his conservator were named as plaintiffs.